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Aboriginal Australians as Anarchists

Aboriginal Australians are seen by some as the earliest anarchists because of a more or less vague correlation of anarchism with decision-making by consensus and the 'noble savage' idea of an uncivilised therefore free nature. A sophisticated version is provided by Ken Maddocks in The Australian Aboriginals-A Portrait of Their Society. On page 44 he says:

The polity of the Aborigines, with its opposition between local or inward-looking and expansive or outward-looking concerns, its freedom from any institution of enforcement, and its consequent stress on self-reliance and mutual aid within a framework of generally recognised norms, was a kind of anarchy, in which it was open to active and enterprising men to obtain some degree of influence with age, but in which none were sovereign. (See also p.183 Penguin paperback)

The whole of Chapter Eight is a stimulating joust with the problems inherent in the notion of freedom, and I don't have space or the breadth of specialised reading to do justice to the points raised. I note here only that Maddocks seems to me to take a narrow view, legalistic I'm inclined to say, of what anarchism is, or would be if achieved, viz, that of a society operating without institutionalised rulers or rule-making procedures. This allows him to point out, fairly, the use in Aboriginal society of male-domination over women and youths, and the uses of 'deceit, fear, ordeals and threats.' (p.190) He observes, 'denials of freedom are compatible with anarchy.'

This is so but not for the reasons Maddocks believes. It is not the use of authority which has provoked interest in anarchism, but the results of the uses of authority. The more fundamental question is not whether people are subject to authority, but whether they are happy, whether they are living satisfying lives, whether they are able to develop their interests and potential. The urge for freedom is based upon the pain, frustration, sorrow and death which are produced or exacerbated as a result of the means used for the organisation of social relations including certain kinds of authority. 'Repression, oppression' and so on are value-laden words, they are not merely descriptive. Thus, limitations to freedom are compatible with anarchy, but only selfimposed limits, not those brought about by convention, force or control of resources. So, individual aborigines could have been anarchists but only if they struggled against the imposed authority, which would appear to be the reverse of the case put by Maddocks.

Interestingly, Maddocks goes on to refer to John Anderson's account of freedom, interestingly because of the part played by Anderson in the formation of libertarian views in post-1940 Sydney.

Malcolm Fraser- Anarchist Prime Minister ?

An even more curious attempt to color an exposition by using terms like 'anarchist' is contained in 'Power Without Theory' in which Deane Wells describes the last Liberal Prime Minister of this country as a 'right wing anarchist' on the basis of Fraser being an 'avowed disciple of the American novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand.' (p.159) He explains further on page 169:

An anarchist is a person who believes in no government. There are two kinds of anarchists, those of the left and those of the right. Right wing anarchists believe that man is not basically co-operative, but basically rationally self-interested. Right wing anarchists or anarcho-capitalists' hold that the best form of society is one in which there is no government interference in people's lives, and no restrictions on the activities of private capital. This latter description fits Rand and to the extent that Fraser adopts her line, it fits him too.

Wells therefore in one paragraph has moved from a definition of the anarchist faith as being one in no government to an implicit recognition that Fraser doesn't necessarily adhere to the line espoused by a particular articulator of a defined variant of that faith. He makes the connection even more tenuous by immediately saying that Rand doesn't believe the full anarcho-capitalist line anyway. Wells then proceeds to a robust critique of 'anarcho-capitalism' which he substitutes for a critique of Rand and/or Fraser. But having raised the obvious question of how much deviation from a particular faith would exclude one from the ranks of adherents, Wells restates his thesis in a much watered down way, that certain things that Fraser does are consistent with 'anarcho-capitalism.' This watering down is of the same sort as Maddocks' above. My own response to Randian guilt-transference is dissimilar to Wells' and can be found in the Australian Humanist for Winter, 1975 or Red and Black (Sydney), No.7.

Between these two extremities of Australian history there are many outcrops of interest. I can only refer here to some of the most prominent, all yet to be mined for their undoubted riches. There are also many individuals and groups, and expressions of libertarian faith as yet unsighted. For example, the political nature of convictism and the role of Australia's colonial days (Have they ended?) in western imperialism are still being articulated, while detailed coverage of the many 'underground' groups (ie groups organised around a desire for change or replacement of the prevailing power patterns, eg Fenians) is still to be written. Even the seemingly well-known groupings such as the Eureka miners are unknown as specific individuals who can be located emotionally, socially and ideologically. The numerous struggles, uprisings and individual protests against oppression up to the present day cannot as yet be easily located on a spectrum of libertarian-authoritarian. The second thing to be said flows from the . examples opening this section, that labels, even self chosen ones, cannot simply be taken at face value. To go beyond labels is therefore necessary. In only a few cases, however, is it possible. The third thing to say is that, difficult or not, it is the most important task that historians and social commentators have. Nothing else they might do in their professional work can have such value.

This last statement may seem trite, but our basic problem is not an imbalance of wealth, but an imbalance of power.

The Squatter as Anarchist:

Michael Roe's Quest for Authority, 1825-1851 is one of a small number of academic attempts to seriously interpret certain parts of the 19th-Century, white Australian society as "anarchic.' Referring to the strong feeling against taxation and government officials, he records that gentry settlers, whose education enabled them to be visible, were described as 'all radicals of the worst kind, and their children....brought up in the belief that all Governments are bad' (p.78). Roe comments that such 'anarchism permeated the whole movement for self government' in New South Wales. There are a number of public uses of the term 'anarchy' to show that by 1840 the struggle for control of the definition had already begun in this country.

In his PhD thesis, Some Aspects of Squatting in NSW and Qld, 1847-1864'(ANU, 1972), David Denholm continues Roe's idea and suggests that squatting was, and is, the 'utter antithesis of tradition, order and social stability' and that the squattocracy, especially the early ones like Charles Throsby, were acting out an anarchist philosophy when they went out from the Sydney Cove Settlement, out beyond the range of constituted authority to establish their own hegemony. Again, as with the other academic examples drawn on here, readers of this effort will find an enormous qualifying of the original proposals and will have to decide whether disqualification occurs as a result.

The Diggers as Anarchists:

Another dissenting group, contemporaneous to the squatters has also been referred to as anarchic. Raffaello Carboni, in his eye-witness account of the Eureka Stockade incident refers to himself as 'Captain of the Anarchists' in a half joking reference to a police-spy.

The gold-miners have been both abused and applauded for their 'anarchic' proceedings. Their capacity to organise their own food supplies, courts, transport and communications, and to form and dissolve organic co-operatives spontaneously were pointed to by later propagandists for both centralised and decentralised forms of socialism, as evidence for their point of view.

It is, of course, not accidental that many of these speculations are about persons in close proximity to 'the land' ie, the non-urban environment. It is fundamental to any attempt at selfsufficiency that individuals have access to arable land. The significance of food, and its additives to associated activities, to personal health and thus psychic and physical well-being intensifies the need for this access.

The selection that follows provides only a flavor of what is available. I have deliberately left out crucial items, such as the Manifesto of the Melbourne Anarchist Club (MAC) and many key writings of Club members, to save space here, as some have already been included in my A Reader of Australian Anarchism, 1886-1896, Canberra 1979, and What is Communism? and Other Anarchist Essays by J.A.Andrews on 1889 Melbourne, Melbourne, 1984. I have emphasised the feminist response to the 'official' anarchist movement and the question of organisation in the items for the last 15 years or so.

Bob James 1986

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Last modified: February 2, 1998

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